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Iraq: Security Council Debates Humanitarian Program

A divided United Nations Security Council is giving new consideration to the oil-for-food program which provides humanitarian goods to Iraq. Many council members on Friday called for an easing of conditions that have prevented Iraqis from making vital infrastructure improvements. The biggest supporter of hardline sanctions against Iraq -- the United States -- reaffirmed its position, but said it was taking steps to quicken to process for allowing goods to come into Iraq. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Security Council yesterday was a forum of frustration.

From UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan came concern that the world body is increasingly responsible for the deterioration of living conditions in Iraq.

Permanent Council members Russia, France, and China criticized persistent U.S. holds on contracts for supplies Iraq can buy through the UN's oil-for-food program.

The other two permanent members -- the United States and Britain -- expressed concern that the world community was losing sight of the reason for the sanctions. They called on members to note Iraq's non-compliance with UN resolutions on removing its weapons of mass destruction.

But amid the frustrations in the chamber came a few signs of change.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham told the council that a new U.S. review of sanctions measures would result in the immediate lifting of 70 contracts worth about $100 million. Cunningham said U.S. staffing had not kept pace with the number of contracts to Iraq that were under review, leading to delays. He said the review process was now being improved.

The United States this week also agreed to Annan's proposals to double the amount of equipment for Iraq's oil industry to $600 million per each six-month period. The United States has drawn up a resolution to formalize this increase and it is expected to be adopted by the Council next week.

In opening yesterday's Council session, Annan said that the amount of contracts frozen in the Council's sanctions committee was directly harming the humanitarian situation in Iraq. And Annan said the UN was in danger of losing the "propaganda war" about who was responsible for the suffering in Iraq.

"The humanitarian situation in Iraq poses a serious moral dilemma for this organization. The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak, and has always sought to reduce suffering, yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population."

There was no call for the immediate lifting of the 10-year-old sanctions, but many council members criticized the large number of U.S. holds on contracts. They expressed alarm at the humanitarian toll this was having.

U.S. officials say they have put about 1,000 contracts, worth $1.5 billion on hold. The reasons are that U.S. officials believe the contracts could be used for military purposes, for smuggling oil or because applications lacked details.

But other council members say the holds are excessive and that the resulting impact on Iraqi living standards is devastating. Annan said he was particularly concerned about the suffering of Iraqi children.

Even Council members that were harshly critical of Iraq called for expediting the contracts so that humanitarian goods could be purchased.

Dutch ambassador Peter van Walsum is the chairman of the council's Iraqi sanctions committee. He said Iraq had repeatedly blocked improvements to the humanitarian program. He stressed that Iraq must convince international monitors that it has eliminated its weapons programs before sanctions are lifted.

But van Walsum was also concerned about the number of contracts being blocked.

"We consider the current amount of application holds intolerably high. It is clear that a more sustained effort to reduce this amount is urgently needed."

The U.S. representative, James Cunningham, made a series of proposals to improve UN programs in Iraq. One of them called for UN agencies to take over humanitarian functions in all of Iraq, not just the three northern areas outside of Baghdad's control. He repeated assertions by the U.S. government that Iraq is using a portion of smuggled oil proceeds to build up its military apparatus.

The head of the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, told the council there should be a special provision created to assure that children receive humanitarian goods under international sanctions regimes. But she also said the Iraqi government shared responsibility for the plight of its people.

"We don't believe that sanctions are the only factor, and we think that is very important to recognize. The effects of two wars, the failure of the government of Iraq to invest in social services, particularly in health and education, have also contributed certainly to the rise in child mortality."

A report issued by UNICEF last year said infant mortality in Iraq had risen from 56 per 1,000 in the late 1980s, to 131 per 1,000.

Annan said he plans to appoint a new UN official to direct the humanitarian program in Iraq within one week. The newcomer will replace Hans von Sponeck of Germany, who announced he would be leaving at the end of this month to protest the impact of the sanctions on Iraqi civilians.

Meanwhile, the head of the new UN monitoring mission for Iraq, Hans Blix, continues to put together his team and program for an arms inspection mission in Iraq, hoped for later this year.